TV Report Card | 'Bates Motel' Season 3 Review


Overview: The Bates family faced further trials and tribulations in the series' outstanding third season. Convinced that Norman (Freddie Highmore) had killed a motel guest, the season’s core mystery revolved around whether he was actually guilty and if so what Norma (Vera Farmiga) was going to do about it. Her investigation and eventual possession of a highly coveted thumb drive would pit her against the town’s heavy hitters and place her in the dangerous crosshairs of the season’s big bad: Bob Paris (Kevin Rahm).


In between protecting his mother and brother, Dylan (Max Thieriot) started building a tentative bond with his biological father/uncle Caleb (Kenny Johnson), a development that threatened his strengthening relationship with Norma. For Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Romero (Nestor Carbonell), season 3 saw them both entangled in a fight for survival as they each dealt with life-threatening close calls. When it came to its third stint, “Bates Motel” was doing major business.

Storyline Pros:

Norman’s Descent into Madness
We all knew it was coming and in season 3, the devolving state of Norman Bates’ psychological condition was a hard hitting plot point handled with the utmost decorum. Since the show began there had been a concern about the rate of which his mental health would deteriorate.

Done too quickly, it would make it impossible to justify his family's denial and them looking the other way when he was a threat to people. Done too slowly, his eventual collapse would risk coming out of the apparent blue. Somehow, writers Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse have managed to chart just the right trajectory for Norman’s inevitable break. 

Norma: Mother + Daughter + Sister + Business Woman = One Magnificent Character
Look around television and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a character written with greater depth than Norma Bates and no other season more vehemently argued that case than season 3. A mother overwhelmed by one son’s illness and the other’s biological origins, an entrepreneur struggling to keep her business afloat, a daughter tormented by memories of a rough childhood and a sister conflicted by her complicated feelings towards her brother. Her season 3 journey culminated in one of the series’ finest episodes (“Norma Louise”).

In another bravura performance by Vera Farmiga, a haunted and damaged Norma desperately tried to reconcile the emotional blow of learning about Dylan’s relationship with Caleb. A perceived betrayal by the son she had been relying on the most. How she handled that downward spiral was quintessential Norma; first with a complete breakdown and then a determined ascent from the ashes. 

Dylan Connects with his Biological Father/Uncle 
When Dylan's paternity was revealed in season 2, the bombshell shattered the Bates family and its impact would continue in season 3 as a repentant Caleb sought out Dylan for a chance to connect as father and son. The heart wrenching dynamic was played out in several standout scenes wrought with tragic undertones.

As is the case with most of “Bates Motel’s” tenants, Caleb's heart turned out to be neither black nor white. The show continued to challenge viewers to consider all of the jagged angles that comprise a person. The scene in which Dylan confronts Caleb about the level of consent involved in his and Norma’s relationship was a brutal moment of tremendous pathos on both sides of the equation. Life and those who live it are often a muddled concoction of humanity and that scene brought the point home.

Emma Faces her Mortality
In a cast of grey area characters, who often find themselves doing the wrong things for the right reasons, Emma is the sole voice of pure good. Season 3 saw her more determined than ever to be accepted into the Bates family as her ongoing health battle with CF persisted. Death is an ever lurking presence on the series and the fragility of life is often conveyed in the wake of a senseless murder.

There is an interesting parallel the show presents with Emma and Norman’s characters. Emma is overwhelmed by a physical disease that puts her life in constant jeopardy, affecting her loved ones with concern for her well being. Norman battles a mental illness that endangers his life and others, worrying his loved ones. In a powerful message by the series, both afflictions are shown as being just as real and its sufferers just as consequential.
Dylemma
Romance has a curious track record on “Bates Motel”. Norman’s ill-fated affection for Bradley, Emma’s unrequited crush on Norman, Dylan’s short-lived fling with a drug maven and Norma’s frustratingly unfulfilled flirtation with Romero, have not made for the most romantically successful narrative. Thankfully the streak of bad romance was finally broken with Emma and Dylan’s long awaited coupling.

There currently isn't a better matched pairing among television’s younger set. The characters make perfect sense on paper and actors Olivia Cooke and Max Thieriot have the chemistry to back it up. Few things on “Bates Motel” register as being purely sweet and the "Dylemma" pairing offers a refreshing achievement in that regard.

More Romero and the Slow Burn of Nomero
Season 3 cast some light on the backstory of the solemn Sheriff and it did not disappoint. As one might have suspected, his is a story filled with tragedy. The tidbits revealing this were carefully strewn throughout the season and revealed in a naturally cultivated fashion that bit with the series’ usual air of realism. Romero is a man of mystery and the series maintained his enigmatic persona by offering enough new insight without giving too much it away.

Nestor Carbonell and Vera Farmiga’s chemistry continued to exhibit volcanic heat. What sets the “Nomero” pairing apart is that they are as entertaining to watch sniping at each other as they are sharing a moment of tender understanding. Not to mention, Romero is the only man who could truly handle a woman like Norma.

Storyline Cons: None - another flawless season.

Performance Quality: It goes without saying that Vera Farmiga’s performance was legendary, oscillating between that of a neurotic mother and calm calculator without missing a beat. You can read more about that here. Freddie Highmore continued the impressive feat of making Norman both the quirky boy-next-door and scary killing machine. He also portrayed Norman’s flickering realization and fear over his mental demise with staggering depth.

When you have two larger than life characters like Norma and Norman, it makes Max Thieriot’s performance all the more crucial and impressive. He’s managed to carve out an original character in the "Psycho" mythos that holds their own against two very flashy leading roles and make them all the better for it. Thieriot's turn brings a necessary brand of tortured good guy to the canvas, displaying an underlying sadness that never panders for sympathy - a difficult feat.

Before she earned raves from film critics for her turn in 2015's “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”, Olivia Cooke was giving every ounce of heart into her performance as the plucky Emma. Few actresses can convey a sense of sweetness without dipping into saccharine excess, the way Cooke can. She is simply marvelous and season 3 gave her even meatier material to bite into. Nestor Carbonell’s performance as the somber Sheriff Romero remained the quiet backbone of the series. Carbonell manages to convincingly walk the line between hard boiled bad-ass and virtuous hero without hesitation.

New to the cast in season 3 was Kenny Johnson, whose turn as the rueful Caleb Calhoun was nothing short of incredible. Without Johnson’s performance, it would’ve been impossible to understand why Dylan takes such a giant leap of faith to get to know his father. The scenes between Johnson and Thieriot as Caleb and Dylan attempted to sort out their complicated father/son relationship were among the most powerful television has seen in some time.

What makes the “Bates” ensemble so impressive is that they are as entertaining in their separate orbits as they are interacting together. There’s no other cast quite like them. Their skill level is unrivaled. Many shows can count a larger ensemble but none of them outmatch their talent.

Overall Grade: A+, it’s been said before and it deserves to be stated again; “Bates Motel” is the best series currently on the air. It has no equal. For 3 years in a row, it has been at the pinnacle of quality television and it showed no signs of decline.

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